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Can Wellness Spas Help You Live Longer?

Courtesy of Miraval Life in Balance Miraval Life in Balance.

Photo: Courtesy of Miraval Life in Balance

Since opening in 1996, Miraval has drawn an outdoorsy crowd interested in dabbling in new fitness routines (Pilates, chi kung) and woo-woo hobbies (drumming, Zen drawing). The spa specializes in advanced bodywork therapies such as Reiki, Cranio-Sacral, and Zero Balancing. The Southwestern-style guest casitas overlook a blooming Sonoran Desert landscape. After a decade, the 400-acre resort is getting a much-needed makeover. Miraval’s CEO John Vanderslice says, "We’re adding residential villas, more guest rooms, a yoga meditation center, and treatment tents with outdoor showers. It’s going to be killer." Case also intends to take the destination spa global. That will include a Miraval Living condominium in Manhattan and another spa resort in Costa Rica.

Although these plans can be construed as fluffing up an aging brand, the Center for Life in Balance will be a comprehensive medical institution, albeit more crunchy than clinical. Housed in a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–certified, eco-friendly annex, Miraval guests will be able to take advantage of Weil’s nonconformist approach to sustaining health. He’s less interested in MRI’s and more focused on listening to what guests have to say about their aches and pains. And unlike the present-day assembly-line approach to medicine, Weil says, he "hopes we’ll be able to change the nature of contact between physicians and patients."

Currently, Weil conducts three-day Healthy Aging seminars at the spa. His program is designed to address "compression of morbidity" (condensing disability into a shorter period toward the end of life or reducing the chance of age-related diseases) by exploring diet, exercise, stress, sleep, and even problematic relationships. Like that of CWI, Miraval’s executive health package will include a cardio-metabolic stress test, diagnostic blood work, nutrition assessment, and an exercise regimen. In addition, the entire staff will be indoctrinated in the Weil Way. "We’ll have doctors from my integrative medicine program at the University of Arizona, including an osteopath and a naturopath and experts in traditional Chinese medicine, cognitive behavior, and ayurveda," he says.

But just how effective, exactly, are these programs?Certainly, both CWI’s and Miraval’s sugar-coated longevity concepts—with their analyses delivered in a warm and fuzzy manner—sound impressive. But the science behind longevity is nascent, and much of it is up for debate. And given the boomer population’s neuroses about their life expectancy, it’s hard not to wonder if these new packages are pricey placebos. It’s worth noting, though, that one of CWI’s primary investors (to the tune of $50 million) is the insurance company WellPoint’s Arcus division, which is charged with promoting preventive care solutions. There’s hope that CWI’s clients, who aren’t exactly the HMO crowd, might drive a trend that will trickle down.

What’s certain is that these programs are effective in at least one way: behavioral modification. Almost all medical studies on longevity point to one thing—people with bad habits have a shorter life span. So while it helps to have newfangled tests that are great at catching potential problems early, guests at either resort have to be committed to making a few adjustments to their routines (stop smoking, stop drinking, stop stressing, eat more veggies) to see results. Even I am forced to admit that a few adaptive changes of my own are in order. Giving up bone-crushing sports and fat-marbled slabs of beef is no longer as hard as I once imagined. But I’ll never quit my eternal search for a wrinkle cream that really works.

Shane Mitchell is a T+L contributing editor.

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